Visual Arts

Inside HMNS's Stunning "Vanishing Arts" Collection

Jaguar mask is on view in "Vanishing Arts: Highlights from the Beasley-Hwang Collection" at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Jaguar mask is on view in "Vanishing Arts: Highlights from the Beasley-Hwang Collection" at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Photo courtesy of Houston Museum of Natural Science
What was it about these eclectic artifacts from exotic lands that caused husband-and-wife physicians Robert Palmer Beasley and Lu-Yu Hwang to say, "Yes, that ceremonial jaguar mask will look perfect next to the Tao seagoing canoe and stunning dragon robe from the Imperial Court of China?"

The 55 objects on view at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in "Vanishing Arts: Highlights from the Beasley-Hwang Collection" are both fascinating and stunning. Picked up along the way during decades of studying hepatitis B while the epidemiologists lived and worked in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico and other countries, the resulting exhibit parallels Houston's diverse population.

Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., HMNS's curator of anthropology, says the 55 objects on view are just a portion of a much larger collection. He says the majority of the pieces are from Indonesia and Malaysia, while others come from China, Thailand, Taiwan and Africa. Utilitarian and ceremonial objects alike are displayed in the 3,000-square-foot gallery space, along with world maps that indicate the region of origin, descriptions, videos and photographs that offer context.

click to enlarge Detailed view of above Jaguar mask's cranium - PHOTO COURTESY OF HOUSTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE
Detailed view of above Jaguar mask's cranium
Photo courtesy of Houston Museum of Natural Science
Dr. Tuerenhout says his personal favorite is the jaguar mask, but he's seen a lot of visitors taking photographs (no flash, please) of the masks from Bali. "To each his own." All of these masks are ornate, highly detailed and take a very long time to create, which is demonstrated in a companion video. "The men carve and the women paint; they have a good eye, a steadier hand at applying the dots. It's almost like a French painter with the pointillism style."

Also fascinating is a fishing canoe from a small island off the coast of Taiwan. "It's beautifully decorated and has its own ceremony; that's explained in the video next to the canoe," says Dr. Tuerenhout. "They carve it, and then they celebrate the launching ceremony, which means walking down from the village to the beach. But before you get to the water, the entire village will throw it in the air. The higher it goes, the more fish."

He also says that many visitors will find something from their ancestry and linger a bit longer looking at the objects from that region. "Houston is such a cosmopolitan city. We haven't had an opportunity to display things from these parts of the world. People who have roots will be enthralled and engaged in the show."

Drs. Beasley and Hwang worked tirelessly studying hepatitis B and liver cancer; their efforts (along with those of colleagues) led to the eventual global recommendation for HBV immunizations. Dr. Beasley had hoped to see hepatitis B eradicated during his lifetime; although that goal had not yet been achieved when he died in 2012, the disease is now eradicable.

He had ties to Texas as well, becoming the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Texas in 1987, only to feel the call of duty once again and help control a 2003 outbreak of SARS in Taiwan.

Dr. Hwang continues to serve as a professor in the department of Epidemiology & Disease Control at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Our concrete jungle is a far cry from the years they spent exploring these exotic locales.

"Vanishing Arts: Highlights from the Beasley-Hwang Collection" is on view through October 22 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 713-639-4629, Free with museum admission; free to $25.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney